CHAPTER TWENTY

Charlie parked his jeep beside his cabin and sat, staring ahead. Somehow, things just had not worked out the way he had expected. He knew, right from the start, that Ed would be upset when he found out what Charlie had done. Angry, even. But he had never envisioned this. He had completely misjudged Ed's reasoning in leaving his friends.

The people Nick had talked to had leant credence to the deep attachment Charlie felt the four men had for each other. Charlie could not believe that any of them would turn their back on an injured or disabled teammate. That's why he'd sent for them. He thought he had to prove that to Ed. Instead, that was exactly the reason Ed had left them.

And now the trust and friendship that Charlie himself had cultivated with Ed was in deep jeopardy. Something Charlie did not want to let go of, for either of their sakes'.

He stepped heavily out of the jeep and headed for the cabin. And stopped short, seeing Colonel Smith sitting on the front steps, and Nick standing not far from him. One of them, Nick probably, had turned on the kerosene camp lights, and he could see their faces clearly.

Neither man looked very happy.


*****

Nick had headed up to Charlie's as soon as the cleanup at Queenie's was finished. It hadn't taken long - all they had to do was pick up the few items that were left and take a broom to everything else. Swept it all right out the back door. Some of the women had stayed with Queenie, lending moral support. The rest had drifted away, the women shaking their heads sadly, the men, ashamed.

That's something else Nick didn't think Charlie had counted on. Sure, he'd warned them that Sinon could cause major problems, including violence. But Nick didn't think anyone had really believed it would go that far, himself included. But now it was here, and so were these mercenaries, making the village men look like they couldn't take care of their own. Pride was something Nick didn't think anyone here would have a problem with, but from the looks on the villagers' faces, he'd been wrong. It surprised him, actually. Maybe surprised everyone.

He was practically on Charlie's front porch before he saw the colonel sitting there. He had a scowl on his face that made Nick hesitate. Something about the way he was staring off into space made Nick very nervous. And he didn't like the fact that he was sitting on Charlie's doorstep, when Nick knew Charlie never locked up.

It dawned on him that he didn't trust John Smith. Not one iota.

"Colonel."

"Nick." Smith was looking at him, speculative. "You know anything about Charlie's family, Nick?"

"Some. Why?" Nick stepped past him, sat on the chair just behind him. He expected Smith to turn around and look at him, but he didn't. Just went back to staring into the air.

"He has a niece, right? Somewhere in LA?"

"I think so." Nick knew damn well what Smith was getting at, but damned if he was going to ask. One thing he'd learned from Charlie - let the other guy ask the questions. That's how you found out what he knew, what he didn't.

"Where at? What's she do?"

"I don't know, exactly." Which was true. He also knew Smith knew. How he knew was another question. Had Smith put two and two together?

"What's her name, Nick?"

"Uh, Sarah, Susan, something like that."

"Wouldn't be Sandy, would it?"

"Could be."

"A friend of mine had a nurse named Sandy. I think he had a thing for her. Maybe she had for him. Don't know. I do know he talked to her. A lot. Maybe too much."

Nick didn't know what to say to that. Did Smith know, or didn't he?

"Maybe he talked to her about us. And maybe she talked to Charlie about us. What d'ya think, Nick?"

Nick started to relax. Smith was going down a different road. A safer road.

"Anything's possible, I suppose."

"I think maybe he did. I think maybe she did. And that's how Charlie decided to get in touch with us. The only question is, why?"

"Why? After what those jerks did today, you wonder why?"

"This Mordake - Charlie seemed to think he had a plan in mind. Why not let him try it, first? Why call us in before your guy had a chance to work his magic?"

"Well, I..."

"Charlie likes to think of himself as some sort of fixer, doesn't he? Has all the answers to all the questions, right? That's how he kept this place going, isn't it?"

"Well, not exactly..."

"I know Sandy liked us. Liked my friend. She's a good gal. Wants to help out. Wants people to be happy. Right?"

"I guess..."

"So she contacts Uncle Fix-It, and the two of them decide to do a little therapy on the A-Team. Got you involved. Kept pestering until we took this job. Because Uncle Charlie wanted to make little niece Sandy happy. And build up his ego at the same time. Am I right, Nick? We became Charlie and Sandy's little project."

Nick said nothing. He didn't like hearing Charlie or Sandy talked about that way. That's not what they were like.

"Okay, Nick. Okay. We'll just wait for good ol' Charlie to come back from his little visit to Mordake, and then we're going to have a little chit-chat. And then my men and I will take care of Sinon for you, and get the hell out of here." Smith took out a cigar and calmly lit it. "But you and Charlie are going to get one thing straight. I don't like companies like Sinon. But I don't like being played even more. So the cards better be on the table from now on, or you're going to be dealing with a couple of very angry men."

Nick slumped down in his chair. He knew this had been a bad idea...


*****

Face stopped and looked around, suddenly anxious. He hadn't paid any attention to his surroundings for a long time, a mistake that could be fatal out here. It was now totally dark, only the light from the quarter moon illuminating the way. He looked around, feeling the panic building. He hated the dark. Hated it. The doctors had said his "good" eye would get better, that he'd be able to see normally soon, but it hadn't happened. Things were still blurred; not a lot, but enough so the darkness made it difficult to see anything. He didn't like that. Too many things out here at night.

He looked quickly around for Petey, called out to him. A moment later, a white blur leaped up at him, flustering him even more. He reacted angrily, pushing the dog away. Petey stood back, whining.

"Petey! Home!" One of the first things Face had taught the dog was how to get them both back to the trailer. He hadn't been completely stupid. He knew there would come a time when he might need help, finding his way through the desert that looked so much the same. Thankfully, Petey was smart. He'd caught on right away, and tonight he obediently turned and started trotting briskly off into the desert. Face hurried to keep up, stumbling over small bushes and rocks. It was not only physically painful, but added to his anxiety. What if Petey got too far ahead? What if Face fell and broke something? What if he hit his head again?

How many times he fell on the way back, he lost track of. He knew his hands, knees, and elbows were bleeding. He felt the sweat running down his back, down his face, running under the damn patch, itching, irritating. He could just barely see Petey, still running ahead. He fell one more time, and called to the dog. Petey came rushing back, anxiously sniffing around Face's head and neck. Face reached out, pulling the dog to him. He had to keep Petey close, to keep the coyotes and other predators from him. He lay his head down on the gritty sand, the dog snuggled tightly against his side, safe. He looked at the stars above. Closed his eye, ashamed.

He was scared...


*****

Charlie walked slowly up to the cabin, not feeling ready to spar with Smith. But he had work to do. Somehow he had to convince Smith to stay, but do nothing. Not until Ed had a chance to work his plan, whatever that might be. He knew only that if Sinon pulled anything, he was to report it immediately. Ed would take it from there.

But what would Smith do? He had come, after all, to stop Sinon. Charlie sighed deeply. It was all becoming way too complicated. He was not used to dealing with this type of people, people who had no distaste for violence. Who reveled in it. And, if what Ed had said was true, became restless and angry if they had to sit and do nothing.

Which was precisely what he had to convince them to do.

He stepped warily up to his porch, stood looking, first at Smith, then over at Nick, hoping for some clue as to what was on the colonel's mind. He didn't have to wait.

"Charlie, you've been less than upfront with me. I don't like that. My men don't like that."

"I don't know what you mean, Colonel. I..."

"Bull, Charlie. I know about Sandy."

Charlie looked immediately to Nick, who shook his head, arms outstretched. No, Nick would not have said anything. Then how...?

"I saw the picture, Charlie. Yeah, I went inside, took a look around. I knew there was something you weren't telling me."

"Colonel, we've got more important things to talk about." Nick interrupted, anxiously. He'd been preparing for this since finding Smith here. He knew Smith wouldn't let Charlie off the hook, but he was determined not to let that get in the way of the immediate problem. "Charlie, some of Sinon's hoods came today. Busted up Queenie's place."

"What? When?"

"This afternoon. We chased them off for you. But they'll be back." Hannibal frowned, and Charlie knew he didn't like being side-tracked, but business was business. "What did your buddy say? Is he going to cooperate or not?"

Charlie sighed. Too much, too fast.

"He's...reluctant. Look, Smith, he has a plan, and he's had a lot of time to think it out. I'm supposed to let him know as soon as Sinon pulls something, and then he's going to put it into action. I don't know what it is, but I trust him to know what he's doing."

"Well, I'm afraid I don't. I've seen too many civilians try to be the hero, and it never fails to get screwed up. Look, Charlie, we're the professionals here. That's why you called us in, right?"

There was an irony in Smith's voice that Charlie couldn't fail to hear. Damn. He knew about Sandy - what else did he know? Again, he looked over at Nick.

"Nick didn't say a word, Charlie. Dumb as a rock. Now, Sinon has grabbed the brass ring, and Mordake wants to get things moving. So, let's go tell him."

"Now wait a minute, Smith..."

"No, you wait a minute, Charlie. I've had it up to here with your mystery man - and with you and your half-truths. Either you want us to take care of Sinon or you don't. If you do, then we go out to see Eddie, right now, together. Otherwise, my men and I are out of here. Now."

"Colonel, please, I..."

"Okay. If that's the way you want it." Smith stood and started striding away from the cabin. There was no doubt what his intentions were.

"Wait!" Charlie looked at Nick, saw him shaking his head, but he had no choice if he didn't want it all falling apart. "Okay, you can go with me out to Ed's place. But you don't go in with me. You wait until I can talk to him again. If he agrees to it, then I'll bring you in. If not, well, I guess I can't keep you here."

"You'd turn this place over to him, just like that?" Smith looked almost incredulous. "Just who the hell is this guy, Charlie? What makes you protect him and depend on him, all at the same time?"

"Hopefully, you'll soon find out, Colonel."

Charlie headed for his jeep, Smith following close behind. Nick watched as the jeep headed off into the desert. He wished he could've talked to Charlie first. Charlie needed to know about the real A-Team...